The wholesale charter revisions of the "strong mayor" initiative created an entirely new position, which may or may not be powerful and influential.
Here's the relevant section of the charter:
"The President of Council shall be elected by and from the members of the Council and shall preside at all meetings of the Council; the President of Council shall have a voice and vote in its proceedings. The President of Council shall be recognized as the leader of the Council."
Obediently conforming to the charter mandate, the newly installed City Council chose its longest-serving member, Scott Hente, as president at its first formal meeting, five hours after being sworn in Tuesday morning.
"Leader of the Council?" Just what does that mean? Is the Council president merely its presiding officer, the poor sap who has to show up, run the meetings, keep Douglas Bruce under control when he appears for one of his periodic rants, and doesn't get paid a nickel extra for his/her extra service? Is his/her only real power the ability to call bathroom breaks?
Maybe. But if Hente can be a powerful, persuasive leader, the Council president may become an effective counterweight to the mayor.
Anyone who has served as a county commissioner, school board member or City Council member knows that a lousy presiding officer poisons the elected body.
Meetings go on interminably, as elected officials and constituents take turns entertaining each other with pointless, self-indulgent monologues. Tired and dazed by hours of meandering, unfocused presentations by staff and special-interest groups, decision-makers postpone issues, hand them off to others, or cook up some half-baked solution that pleases no one.
Now consider the same group with an incisive, focused leader.
Meetings run smoothly and efficiently. The presiding officer quickly forges relationships with his/her colleagues, gently creates rules of procedure, and quickly grasps the issues of the moment. She/he understands when to cajole, when to persuade, and when to bully. Knowledge, experience and instinct guide the way, and meetings end with issues clarified and resolved, not muddled and delayed.
And the president will know how to create and manage the relationship between mayor and Council.
So far, it's all sweetness and light. Both mayoral candidates and all nine Council members have made treacly statements about "working together" and "being part of the same team." That's fine — but at some point the new mayor will test the limits of his power, or simply piss off a Council majority.
Will he appoint senior managers without even pretending to consult with Council? Will he create next year's budget with no input from his fellow elected officials? Will he summarily veto a Council-approved ordinance, and dare Council to override?
If Hente has been a strong, effective leader, he'll be able to defuse the situation or, if necessary, unite Council in opposition to the mayor. If not, Council will be divided and ineffective as members pursue their own agendas.
That'd be a disaster.
Neither Steve Bach nor Richard Skorman has experience running a large public enterprise. Granted, neither did Denver's past three mayors (Federico Peña, Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper), who together transformed Denver from a Midwestern backwater into a world-class city.
But since Denver is the state's capital and business/commercial center, its mayors benefit from a deep reservoir of talent. A full-time, generously paid Council has been effectively led, and Denver's mayor can choose appointees with substantial experience in business, state government or the law.
We don't have that kind of deep bench, or that tradition of city government service. Bach or Skorman will likely be stuck with well-meaning folks of modest competence, making Hente's position even more important.
We'll see whether he has the steel to shut up the Dougster and to cut off rambling soliloquies from "community activists," and the ability to think on his feet (or, more precisely, on his seat).
If not, a leaderless Council may be in for a rough couple of years, as the new alpha dog treats them with the same respect that a litter of Chihuahuas could expect from the neighborhood pit bull.